From despair to hope: The story, triumph of childhood cancer survivors Charity Kawadza

Raymond Jaravaza Bulawayo Bureau

A six-year-old boy was diagnosed with cancer and given only four years to live. His parents were heartbroken, but they wanted to make his remaining time as happy as possible. They asked him what his biggest wish was, and he said he wanted to meet his idol, the late former President Robert Mugabe.

The boy’s wish reached the ears of Andrea Whatman, a cancer survivor who was volunteering at a Harare hospital where the boy was being treated. She had been diagnosed with cancer in 1980 and was still fighting the disease, but she had a passion for helping children with cancer. She would visit them, read to them, buy them toys, and cheer them up.

Whatman decided to help the boy fulfil his wish. She contacted President Mugabe, who was moved by the boy’s letter and invited him to the State House. The boy was overjoyed to meet his hero in 1989. This event touched many people and inspired Whatman to start an official organisation that would grant the wishes of children with cancer. She registered Kidzcan in 1990, a child-centred private voluntary organisation that is still operating today.

The boy, whose identity is not revealed to protect his privacy, defied the odds and survived his cancer. He became a nurse and worked in Zimbabwe before moving to the UK. He visited Kidzcan last month and met some of the children who are facing the same challenge he did. He is a living testimony of hope and courage.

Kidzcan supports over 700 children, both cancer patients and survivors, in four hospitals in Zimbabwe: Parirenyatwa, Sekuru Kaguvi, Sally Mugabe and Mpilo. The children range from 0 to 18 years old. Kidzcan provides them with medication, counselling, education, and other services that they need. Kidzcan also makes their dreams come true, whether it is a book, a gift, a trip, or a meeting with a celebrity.

Charity Kawadza, the health and awareness coordinator at Kidzcan, said: “Cancer is not like other diseases that can be cured, say a month after taking medication, as a patient is declared cancer free five years after taking their last medication. Depending on the type of cancer that a patient was diagnosed with one can take their medication for up to three years so that’s why the number of children under our care is so high because we have a lot of services to offer them such as counselling before they can be declared cancer free.

“Sometimes it’s all about putting a smile on a child’s face by buying them their favourite book, a gift on their birthday or taking them to their favourite park. It’s the small things that matter to a child that spends days or months on end in a hospital bed.”

How does one break the news to a child that he or she has been diagnosed with a disease that might end their life?

“It is heart breaking to tell a child that they are about to die. It’s the most difficult thing that a doctor or parent has to do. At Kidzcan we have a strong support system that includes counsellors to give the best psychological support to both the child and parents and we try to the best we can to make the good outweigh the bad,” she said.

The country is experiencing unnecessary deaths among children from cancer because many Zimbabweans believe the non-communicable disease does not affect children. Daniel McKenzie, a representative of Kidzcan, bemoaned the lack of knowledge and information on childhood cancers, resulting in most cases being presented late for treatment, making it difficult to successfully treat the children.

“Our parents, guardians and people from all walks of life do not know that children can also be diagnosed with cancer. That becomes a huge challenge because when children are brought to hospital late and diagnosed with cancer, their survival rate is reduced significantly. Early detection of any disease is important for the patient to have a fair fighting chance and the same goes for children diagnosed with cancer, the earlier the disease is detected, the higher the chances of fighting it,” said McKenzie while addressing a two-day National Aids Council media workshop recently.

Common childhood cancers include kidney cancer (Wilm’s tumour), lymph glands (lymphomas), blood cancer (leukemia), bone cancer, brain tumour and body lump (neuroblastoma).

Kidzcan has so far helped train two nurses and the matrons at 47 clinics in Chitungwiza and Harare. In Bulawayo over 150 nurses, sisters-in-charge and health care workers were trained on how to detect childhood cancer or make references whenever they were in doubt.

Kidzcan plans to lobby for childhood cancers to be incorporated on the children health cards that parents religiously follow to have their children immunised and vaccinated at different stages of their growth up to the age of five while reminding health personnel to check for childhood cancers as well when the children present at health facilities.

This would ensure that no children will present late with cancer and help the country reach the 60 percent World Health Organisation of reporting the disease to health authorities by 2030.

Cancer survivors that passed through the care of Kidzcan are always keen to share their experiences with children in hospitals and give them hope that the disease can be beaten.

“The month of June is known as Cancer Survivor Month and we invite survivors that passed through our hands to come and talk to the kids. Children believe what they see with their own eyes and when they see this adult is now 30 years old but was diagnosed with cancer when he or she was five years old but survived, it gives them hope they too will beat the disease,” said Kawadza.

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